The Urban Sloth Project Recap – Part I (November 2020 to December 2021)

The Urban Sloth Project Recap – Part I (November 2020 to December 2021)

 

In the South Caribbean of Costa Rica, it is pretty common to find sloths in unusual places: on a restaurant cutlery shelf, a hotel ladder, a fruit stand, clinging to a truck… you name it, sloths have been there. World-renowned wildlife photographer Suzi Eszterhas came to the South Caribbean to take eye-opening photographs of the lives of these sloths in urbanized areas.

 

sloth between two buildings

 

The Urban Sloth Project

The Urban Sloth Project aims to study how habitat loss and disturbance in the form of urbanization affect the lives of sloths. How often must they come to the ground to change trees, rather than use canopy branches? How long does it take them to traverse the ground? Are they resting lower down than their counterparts living in optimal rainforest conditions?

If so, is this a behavioral factor, or are they forced lower because the trees are not as tall and mature? Must they change trees more frequently to find suitable leaves? And how much variation is there in their diet?

 

sloth on a powerline

 

These are just some of the questions we are aiming to answer through the Urban Sloth Project!

We had our USP timeline mapped out, but unexpected pitfalls, as well as some exciting opportunities, have meant that the old saying has proven itself true, once again – the best-laid plans of sloths and scientists go oft awry.

We would like to share our stories and experiences from the first year of the Urban Sloth Project: the sloths, the trackers, the tears, and the joy.

 

NOVEMBER 2020

First came Sharon 

Sharon was a small juvenile two-fingered sloth (Choloepus hoffmanni), and our very first Urban Sloth. We found her while out scouting for our first urban sloth, she was being harassed by dogs while trying to make her way to a Beach Almond tree (Terminalia catappa). Luckily, our team was there to keep her safe.  She helped us as we got our tracking legs underneath us and figured out how the USP was going to work!

 

sharon urban sloth
Sharon is the first sloth collared for the Urban Sloth Project. She was rescued on the side of a road while being harassed by a dog.

 

JANUARY 2021

Then came the Bradypus

Next, we collared the first of our three-fingered sloths (Bradypus variegatus): Alan, from the beautifully connected eco-hotel Kukula Lodge, and Croissant, whose original territory covered a road undergoing a huge amount of deforestation and construction.

 

sloths recap

Backpacks for everyone! 

Our next Urban Sloths were Cacao and Laurel: both Choloepus and both named after the trees they were found in, and made SloCo history as the first subjects for our famous sloths’ backpacks.

(The sloth backpacks, also called Daily Dairies, track millions of data points every minute as sloths move about the canopy; measuring when they climb, descend, stay still, how fast they move while doing so, and many other activities never before measured in wild sloths.)

Cacao’s territory was an aesthetically beautiful, well-manicured garden that unfortunately didn’t have much connectivity between the trees, forcing Cacao to cross on the ground every time he needed to change trees.

 

cacao sloth
Cacao, found in a cacao tree!

 

Laurel, meanwhile, took his backpack and disappeared onto private property inaccessible to the Tracking Team, where he stayed for nearly two months. The mature and well-connected property was full of tall Laurel de la India, also called Weeping Fig (Ficus benjamina), with one goliath Sandbox tree (Hura crepitans) in the center. This, as well as the abundance of other sloths in the area, made tracking Laurel difficult.

 

Laurel

 

The Tracking Team was therefore very excited when he returned to his original spot, and with some carefully placed feet on shoulders and a pair of scissors, we retrieved his backpack and un-volunteered him from the USP.

 

MARCH 2021

The first fatality 

In March we got a call from a local rescue center that Cacao had been admitted after being attacked by dogs. He survived his initial injuries, but did not survive the resulting secondary infections, and passed away in April, a month after the attack.

Luna and Sol 

Although we had lost our beloved Cacao, we were able to collar Luna and her baby Sol, who would go on to become some of our favorite sloths of the USP. A spontaneous addition to the project, Luna was crossing the main road of Puerto Viejo when she was found by Dr. Cliffe.

Sol was our very first baby of the project, and we were privileged enough to watch him grow and eventually gain his independence from Luna!

 

 

Houdini the Sloth, aka Sharon

Our first USP mystery – Sharon found her way out of her collar. This was unprecedented in sloth tracking, and we still have many questions that will likely never be answered.

 

 

Finding the intact collar on the ground caused great concern that Sharon had been attacked, and the worst-case scenario was that she was nearby, but injured and in pain. Our trackers searched for her, however, five days later she turned up in one of her favorite spots, sans collar, but totally unharmed.

 

APRIL 2021

Hello to our highest friend

Arthur--a regal adult three-fingered male living between a yoga retreat and some luxury rentals–joins the Urban Sloths as the first three-fingered sloth with a backpack, only to have them disappear high into some dense and well-connected canopy.

 

VIP subscription
Arthur the handsome.

 

MAY 2021

Deforestation 

Only a few months after relieving Laurel of his backpack, we were informed of a huge amount of deforestation in Laurel’s area. Devastatingly, Laurel’s entire territory, as well as many other trees along the road, had been cut down.

 

deforestation habitat loss
Dr. Rebecca Cliffe is next to what used to be Laurel’s trees. Photo: Suzi Eszterhas

 

When Team Sloth went to investigate the damage, there were displaced sloths everywhere we looked. We were able to relocate some to more appropriate areas, and we could only hope that Laurel himself survived the destruction.

 

man walking a dog next to a sloth
This sloth and her baby were displaced sloths. With no trees, she remained in the hibiscus bush, exposed to dangers, like free-roaming dogs. Photo: Suzi Eszterhas.

These problems are a direct result of the exact issues we aim to address in the USP, and in spite of the heartbreak from witnessing this kind of deforestation, Team Sloth is more determined than ever to gather this important data on sloth behavior and ecology in urban environments-our ability to scientifically document these events is the only way to effect change.

Hello mango! 

Wildlife photographer Suzi Ezsterhas visited SloCo to document the plight of Urban Sloths. While searching for sloths to photograph, Team Sloth stumbled upon a small, wet ball of fur among fallen leaves and coconut husks along the beach path directly opposite SlotHQ. We bought the little three-fingered sloth in from the cold, where she huddled up to Jim, SloCo’s mascot, and promptly fell asleep.

 

baby sloth cute with teddy bear
Mango became a favorite instantly!

After dining out on some fresh baby guarumo leaves (Cecropia sp.) from our tree nursery, we took the opportunity to fit baby Mango with a tracking collar.

Next to Croissant… Baguette!

We came across a female three-fingered sloth clinging to the top of a fence: she was trying to escape a pack of barking dogs protecting their territory. Team Sloth fought through the pouring rain to rescue the sloth, but before releasing her we fit her with a collar and named her Baguette, since she was found on the same bakery road as little Croissant.

 

VIP adoption

We’d like the Nachos, please!

Welcome Nacho, one of the most remarkable sloths of the USP! Nacho was first fitted with his collar at a cantina on Cocles beach, and named after Team Sloth’s favorite dish there. Over the next couple of weeks, Nacho made his epic journey all the way from Cocles to downtown Puerto Viejo.

 

 

The Tracking Team followed him on his journey to some rather strange places for a sloth to hang out: isolated beach almond trees on the side of the road, the middle of a lively bar, and a restaurant … We soon began to refer to Nacho as out party sloth, for his proximity to human activities.

JUNE 2022

The second fatality

As we were waiting for an opportunity to recollar, we were faced with the second fatality of the USP in June of 2021. Sharon had been electrocuted while using an uninsulated powerline to move between trees.

We were devastated by Sharon’s death and vowed to renew our efforts to understand and help sloths adapt to human-impacted environments.

 

Farewell, Sharon

The traveler sloth

Nacho surprised us all by traveling over two kilometers in two weeks, a feat we had not previously known was possible for a sloth.

JULY 2021:

We recaught Mango to swap his backpack for a collar. Since he was so young and small when we first fitted him, we knew we’d have to check him often to make sure he didn’t outgrow it. We were pleased to find that he was healthy and growing just as expected.

 

AUGUST 2021

Croissant’s big move

Throughout late August 2021, we were having a lot of trouble tracking Croissant. The inconsistent signals from her VHF collar were proving difficult for our tracking team to triangulate.

 

 

It turns out that she had crossed a lengthy deforested gap by traversing fences and roads to an undeveloped piece of land near the center of town, around 500m away. Since her territory was in the process of undergoing a large amount of deforestation and disturbance, it makes sense that she would seek out greener pastures.

While this area is much more difficult for our team to track her in, it is a much more appropriate sloth habitat, and she has remained there ever since.

Nacho’s intervention

Nacho made it all the way to town this month and took shelter in a restaurant during a rainstorm. While it isn’t too unusual for urban sloths to wander into the local eateries, Nacho decided to climb around under the tables and try to bite the customer’s ankles.

 

 

Since this is bad for business, the restaurant owner called the local rescue center, who removed Nacho and called us. After a health check and monitoring period, Nacho was found to be fit and healthy, so we took the opportunity to swap his collar for a backpack!

 

 

He was then released into one of the only appropriate habitat spots in his home range; the dreaded swamp which Croissant had also moved to. Over the next few days Nacho crossed the street to one of Puerto Viejo’s liveliest beach bars. There were a few well-connected trees on the property, and Nacho seemed unconcerned by the constant stream of patrons and loud music.

SEPTEMBER 2021

Croissant health check

First collared as a young adult, we had some concerns that Croissant might eventually outgrow her collar. She had been difficult to find in her new home territory, but at the first opportunity, we gave her a health check and tech adjustment. We were pleased to find that although she had grown, her collar had not become too tight and still fit her well. Finding no adverse physiological effects of the tracking equipment was vital to the continuation of the USP!

 

 

The case of the missing tracking equipment / Bye. bye Nacho

Underneath Nacho’s favorite trees is the permanent camping spot of a man who is not our biggest fan, and took it upon himself to remove Nacho’s tech. He seemed unaware or uncaring that we knew he had Nacho’s backpack, and when we found and refitted Nacho with a collar, he removed that too.

 

Behind these palms was Nacho’s tech.

Team Sloth made the difficult decision to not recollar Nacho. We really liked having him in the USP, but we could not risk his well-being by making him a target for people who would handle him and steal our expensive equipment, and so we removed him from the project.

 

OCTOBER 2021

Good luck Sol!

During the month of October, the Tracking Team had noticed baby Sol going through his rebellious teenager phase: he wanted to be further away from his mum and venture out on his own. It started with three limbs rather than four clinging onto Luna’s fur, a set of claws gripping onto a vine instead. Then Sol was seen next to Luna, rather than on her. Then one day, he wasn’t with her at all! Luna gifted Sol a portion of her territory and little Sol was officially all grown up.

 

Luna without Sol

Always high in the canopy

Baguette remains our most difficult sloth to monitor, and we finally got a chance to retrieve Arthur’s backpack, allowing us to download millions of data points from the backpack (which are still being processed by specialized computers in the Swansea University lab) and confirm that the backpack design works great.

 

Arthur with his new collar.

 

NOVEMBER 2021

The case of the missing collar

One Friday while out tracking, we were receiving no signal at all from little Mango’s collar. While it was possible Mango had decided to move further afield, she would have had to have moved over 10km in less than 24hrs for the VHF signal to not reach the receiver! We know sloths can move faster than most people give them credit for, however this was very much beyond Mango’s capabilities.

 

 

We believe that as Mango’s favorite spots were low down, and often in plain sight if you knew where to look, someone walking along the beach saw little Mango and his little collar, and didn’t know what it was. Luckily, the next day some members of Team Sloth were enjoying a weekend at the beach when they noticed Mango sitting low on her favorite guarumo trunk and she was recollared with little fuss! Mango responded to this collar-napping by venturing across the beach path, and she has since doubled the size of her old territory.

DECEMBER 2021

Just before Christmas, Luna’s territory was being deforested, leaving a dozen sloths and countless other wildlife homeless. However, the community was not going to stand for this. Community members and local organizations, including SloCo, were able to temporarily halt the work and contact the authorities, who had the power to permanently stop the intended development.

 

 

Stay tuned for Part II !

_________________________________________________________________

 

If you would like to receive real-time, monthly updates from the Urban Sloth Project, featuring updates on all of our Urban Sloths, plus biographies, illustrations, and other exclusive materials, you can sign up for our VIP program!

 

The Adventures of Nacho

The Adventures of Nacho

Nacho, a feisty Hoffmann’s two-fingered Sloth, joined the Urban Sloth Project in May 2021. Nacho was one of the most interesting sloths we monitored during the months he was part of the project.

 

 

He was always surprising us with the places we found him in, the distance he traveled, or the photos tourists and locals post on social media with him.

 

 

Almost as soon as he was collared, Nacho decided he needed a change of scenery, and made the two-week journey from Tasty Waves Cantina into the center of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, where he has (mostly) remained. In this blog, we’ll recap the adventures of a sloth living in a busy tourist town, and what we learned from it.

 

Troublesome Sloth

Nacho’s first misadventure was when he was picked up by the local rescue center for relocation in July 2021 (3), after he was caught bothering the patrons of a restaurant (2), trying to bite their ankles like a little dog!

 

 

The only upside to this situation was that we were able to conduct a full health check on him and found that his weight in July was almost half a kilogram heavier than in May. This indicates that the collar he was wearing and our research on him had not affected his ability to thrive in his natural habitat.

 

 

Sometimes during this period he also gained a large scar between his eyes that he had not had when we first collared him.

We took this opportunity to fit Nacho with a micro-logger Daily Diary, a.k.a. tracking backpack, which would give us an in-depth view of his behavior and movements for 28 days, and provide invaluable data for the USP.

 

From the swamp in town to the beach bar

After we fitted him with the backpack we released him to a more appropriate spot in his territory near the swamp he had previously spent some time in (4). Nacho must have disagreed with the new spot though, and he decided to move somewhere a little more familiar: another bar (5).

 

 

After a nice wild goose chase through the month of May, Nacho found a home at Stanford’s (6). This made him a very enjoyable sloth to track (and made the Tracking Team a familiar sight in town), while we began to recognize his movements and patterns. It was very encouraging to watch Nacho thrive in spite of the ultra-urban environment that most sloths would avoid.

 

 

The bar he patronized had chosen to maintain the tree connectivity around their establishment—this is a great policy that makes for a nice atmosphere around the bar, as well as preventing erosion by anchoring the sand with the roots of the sea almond trees…which is important when your bar is located on the beach! Not to mention, it looks nice.

 

Problematic Humans

Spotting sloths in sea almond trees is easier than in many of the other trees sloths favor, as sea almonds’ branches are not usually cluttered with other plants and vines. They usually hold only almond leaves and the occasional sloth.

So when Nacho’s backpack signal went stationary (indicating that it had not moved in a while), and there was no sloth in the spot where the signal was coming from, we got worried.

 

 

The signal was coming from a tarpaulin tent, where a nomadic person had been living for many years.

Concern peaked on day four of the unchanging signal when the Tracking Team spotted a sloth who was around the same size and color as Nacho, snoozing in one of Nacho’s favorite spots, doing an excellent impersonation of Nacho in all ways – except he was missing a backpack. We had to find out if this sloth was really Nacho.

Luckily, we had one very defining future of Nacho’s identity: his scar.

Dr. Cliffe herself scaled the palm tree that potential-Nacho was napping in and was able to confirm that it was indeed Nacho resting in the tree—blissfully unaware of the drama occurring around him. It was very clear that this sloth did not have a backpack on, and the signal was still being emitted from the DIY Settlement.

 

Moving On Without a Backpack

While there was some relief that Nacho was not in fact being held hostage, we were presented with a new problem—equipment being stolen off the backs of the Urban Sloths.

The very expensive sloth backpack was useless to anyone other than us, held a month’s worth of important scientific data, and was now gone. Unfortunately, trying to communicate with the person who took the equipment proved futile and fruitless.

 

 

Team Sloth decided to recollar Nacho and performed a quick health check on him. Despite having an eventful month—visiting the rescue center, being fitted with some new tracking hardware, and apparently having been accosted by a man with scissors who stole his backpack—Nacho was doing as good as ever and had even gained some weight.

 

 

For the following months, Nacho remained in the area surrounding the bar and a hostel, finding shelter from the rain in a small lean-to structure. He had a high visibility rate in the months after his ordeal.

In January 2022 we got a case of déjà vu when his tracking signal (this time from a collar and not a backpack) once again was traced to the camp, and once again there was no sign of Nacho.

After a few days of stress and worry on the part of the Tracking Team, Nacho reappeared in exactly the same palm tree as the previous time he had been stolen from. Nacho’s collar was gone.

 

The End of an Era

It was a difficult decision for Team Sloth to retire Nacho from the USP. While the loss of time, money, and research data from the appropriated equipment was large, the deciding factor was Nacho’s welfare.

In order to fit two-fingered sloths with tracking equipment they must first be sedated, which is not a procedure that should be performed lightly in wild animals, as it can cause the animals a great deal of stress.

 

 

Recollaring Nacho would mean a third sedation in less than a year, and the equipment was making Nacho a target for unscrupulous humans. This was not something we could accept for the sake of our research, and we ultimately had to put Nacho’s welfare above all else.

We are happy to say that Nacho has handled his collarings (and de-collarings) with great aplomb and is thriving in his current territory! We are less happy to say that we have not yet gotten our stolen equipment back, but that’s not Nacho’s fault, after all.

We anticipate that without any wearable tech to make him a target for future interference, he will continue to be Puerto Viejo’s unofficial mascot, greeting tourists from his Sea Almonds on the beach, and embodying the spirit of Pura Vida.

What We Learned from Nacho

While there are many questions yet to be answered about Nacho’s lifestyle, and while we gathered valuable data while tracking him, we won’t be able to come to any conclusions about his activities until the end of this long project, when the data from all sloths is collated and analyzed. Not to mention, our treasure trove of data on his movements was never able to be analyzed before being stolen.

 

 

We are surprised at how well adapted Nacho is to his urban habitat. However two-fingered sloths are disproportionally likely to be admitted into rescue centers with injuries from dog attacks, car strikes, and electrocutions.

We don’t know what the future holds for a sloth that lives in a busy town, and although we don’t officially monitor him anymore, we still see Nacho as we run errands in town, and the staff at Stanford’s keeps an eye out for him.

 

 

-Amelia Symeou & Ames Reeder

The Urban Sloth Project